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When the Ramones released their third album, Rocket to Russia, 40 years ago this week, it should have turned the Queens proto-punks from cult heroes to pop stars. It was, after all, a perfect synthesis of all the things that the group—and especially singer Joey Ramone and guitarist Johnny Ramone—loved about rock ‘n’ roll, things that had been missing from the genre for so long.
But the album only barely cracked the top 50 and, according to the band, The Sex Pistols and 60 Minutes were to blame. Joey, always the most pop-savvy and obsessive member of the group, was convinced that Rocket to Russia’s lead single, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” was going to be a commercial breakthrough. And why not? Watch the Ramones perform the song on Dec. 28, 1978, via the Paste Vault:
The studio version is, of course, even more accessible and snappy, using a Phil Spector girl-group 1960s sound long forgotten. “Sheena” debuted impressively, reaching No. 81 on the charts, but when Joey suffered burns to his throat while using steam to help his voice at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J., the 1977 tour was cancelled. Then, stodgy 60 Minutes popularized the view of punk rock embodied by the anarchic The Sex Pistols: “safety pins, razor blades, chopped haircuts, snarling and vomiting—everything that had nothing to do with the Ramones was suddenly in vogue and it killed any chance of Rocket to Russia getting the airplay it deserved (for its pop esthetics),” wrote Punk Magazine co-founder Legs McNeil. “Everyone kind of flipped out and things changed radically,” Joey said. “It really kind of screwed things up for ourselves.”
Said Johnny about the album, “This was the best Ramones album, with the classics on it. The band had reached its peak both in the studio and live. This one has one great song after another, most of them written between our first and second albums.”
Added drummer Tommy: “We came into our own on that record. We had a little higher budget, we were using really good recording studios, we wrote a lot of the songs together on the road. By that time our playing was really tight. We thought we were just one step away from being successful, you know, so we had a lot of enthusiasm.”
But this recording emphasis caused a rift between leaders Johnny and Joey, with the latter preferring to spend far more time in the studio crafting songs than Johnny was comfortable doing. And that ultimately led to Joey hiring his hero Phil Spector to produce 1980’s End of the Century, a studio experience so fraught with tension that Johnny wrote of Spector in his book Commando, “After he shot that girl, I thought, ‘I’m surprised that he didn’t shoot someone every year.’”
While the pop-perfect pairing of Joey and Phil Spector was inevitable, Rocket to Russia has other period influences, most famously the cover of the Beach Boys’ “Do You Wanna Dance.”
And even more directly in the Ramones’ original, “Rockaway Beach”:
“What we did,” Johnny told Rolling Stone, “was take out everything that we didn’t like about rock ‘n’ roll and use the rest, so there would be no blues influence, no long guitar solos, nothing that would get in the way of the songs.”
While it seems that the differences in crafting studio songs ultimately caused the rift between Johnny and Joey, it turns out that the two group leaders didn’t speak to each other for most of the group’s decades together. As is the case so often in today’s polarized world, politics exacerbated the tension: Johnny was a strong advocate of guns and a conservative Republican at the dawn of the Ronald Reagan era. Joey was not.
But don’t think that Rocket to Russia is pure pop in its lyrical themes or that it shied away from the life on the streets that Reagan’s tranquil “Morning in America” platform ignored. For one example, ”We’re a Happy Family” has a secretive homosexual father, a mother addicted to prescription drugs and a family that sells dope despite being friends with the Pope.
“Siting here in Queens, eating refried beans
We’re in all the magazines, gulpin’ down Thorazines
We ain’t got no friends, our troubles never end
No Christmas cards to send, Daddy likes men
Daddy’s telling lies, baby’s eating flies
Mommy’s on pills, baby’s got the chills
I’m friends with the President, I’m friends with the Pope
We’re all making a fortune selling Daddy’s dope”
But that was bassist and occasional vocalist Dee Dee Ramone, who lived on the streets at a time when the Alphabet City section of New York was defined this way: Avenue A for the “adventurous,” Avenue B for the “brave,” Avenue C for the “crazy,” and Avenue D for the “dead.” Dee Dee Ramone tackled those themes in “Cretin Hop” but, like most Ramones songs, he did it in a way that was, well, funny. In the end, the members’ disparate sounds, styles and attitudes were what made the Ramones the groundbreaking band they were.
“There’s no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’
You gotta keep it beatin’ for all the hoppin’ cretins
I’m gonna go for a whirl with my cretin girl
My feet won’t stop doin’ the Cretin Hop
One-two-three-four, cretins want to hop some more
Four-five-six-seven, all good cretins go to heaven”